Thursday, 24 October 2013

Fruit liqueurs

I've been making fruit liqueurs for a few years now and this autumn saw a few additions to the mix.
  • Bramble whisky. You can use a pretty cheap whisky for this; no point putting a decent Glenfiddich or Balvenie into the bottle, use a cheap supermarket blend instead. There are various recipes around, but what works quite well is just to fill up a demijohn with blackberries and pour whisky in to cover them. You can do this over a few weeks, just adding whatever you manage to pick on any single day, and topping up with whisky till you reach the top. I'll add the sugar in a syrup later on, rather than adding at this point.
  • Damson vodka, which I've made before. Again, rather than measuring out particular amounts, I'm just putting the damsons in a demijohn and then topping up with layers of sugar and then with alcohol. Seems to work just fine. Remember to prick the damson skins so the alcohol can get in and do its work.
  • Spiced rum. I'm a great lover of Nelson's Blood, served in the excellent King's Head pub in Norwich and also available online, though without the excellent company and good evening out in the latter case. I'm also trying my own variation with vanilla, cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg; and I've found recipes for coffee rum and vanilla rum. Both the latter are made by macerating the coffee/vanilla for three weeks, then adding a sugar syrup.
  • Lavender isn't a flavour I'd considered before, but a friend suggested it and I'll be trying it next year. Lavender is such a strong flavour, it doesn't need more than a week or two macerating, and doesn't need a huge amount of lavender to start it off, either.
  • My home made limoncello worked quite well. Compared to the limoncello we bought from Aldi, it's a less pronounced and slightly sweeter flavour, and is short on aftertaste; I made it by layering lemon zest and sugar and macerating with the sugar, so might try it next time with the sugar-syrup method and see if that makes a difference.
  • I've had suggestions for an apple vodka (just infuse), and found an interesting recipe for caramel apple vodka which I really must try, perhaps with a couple of added spices. Apples are a glut around here! Always short of good things to do with them.
Making your own fruit and other flavoured liqueurs isn't incredibly cheap, as you need to buy the booze to start with, unlike making wine or cider where you only need the basic ingredients and yeast. But it's good fun, and relatively little work; and by using home grown or foraged fruit, or cheap past-sell-by-date fruit, you can minimise your cost while expanding your home 'cellar' of interesting flavours.

Biggest tip? For both liqueurs and jelly, buy yourself plenty of cheap muslin and some heavy duty string. We have a couple of roof beams with a big hook, or you can use an upside-down chair with the muslin tied to its legs, to hang the muslin from. Miles better than having to buy a jelly bag ready made. And cheaper.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Go forth and multiply

Getting a garden established is hard work, and - unless you have friends who can help with cuttings or seed from their mature gardens - expensive.

But once you've got a few good plants, multiplying them further is not difficult. Taking cuttings works for many plants; you just have to know when and how.

Grape vines can be propagated by taking bare wood cuttings in autumn, or from green shoots.

Raspberries practically propagate themselves; it's a question of taking the suckers that they produce naturally, and putting them where you want them! Or you can take softwood cuttings in the spring.

Softwood cuttings also work for buddhleia, fuchsia, and maples, while hardwood cuttings will establish new plants of redcurrants, gooseberries, and fig trees.

I've found that while cuttings aren't a 100% reliable method, if you take enough of them, and use hormone rooting powder, together with a good potting soil, you'll get a good few decent plants. If you end up with more than you need, you can always swap for something else!

At this time of year it's also worth thinking about dividing clumps of plants and stands of bulbs. We've managed, over the years, to naturalise some lovely drifts of tulips; in spring, the garden is full of bright pink, dark purple, and the light white and green of 'Spring Green', one of my favourites. I can now dig a few out and spread them around to other areas of the garden. Irisis (technically a rhizome, not a bulb) can also be dug out and divided up - just break them or cut them with a knife to sections of root with a single leaf-spike, and they will grow on quite happily wherever you put them as long as it's not waterlogged.

Sedums can be divided up, indeed should be divided after a few years to keep them healthy. I've done quite well transporting a little more sedum every year to the top of the limestone and flint walls in our garden.

Monday, 7 October 2013

An autumn foraging

I'm not a dyed-in-the-wool forager. But this autumn has been a good one for wild fruit.
  • Blackberries everywhere, although I think I started picking them too late. Old railway lines, footpaths, the edges of woods seem to be areas that blackberries like to grow. I don't like blackberry and apple - I know it's a traditional combination, but to me, the apple just dilutes that fantastic hit of blackberry flavour. Instead, I make blackberry jelly (look, no pips - and the huge advantage is you don't have to take out all the little bits of stalk you're left with, or clean the fruit more than cursorily, just tip everything into the boil, and leave it to drip through muslin overnight. Then add 450g of sugar per 600ml of the vibrant purple juice, get it to boil away for ten to twenty minutes, wait for setting point, and stick it in a jar. Bright purple happiness ready to go on your morning baguette.)
  • Apples and pears - windfalls make me happy. Not so easy to find in town, though there are a few places where I see them splatter on to the pavement - pass by early in the morning to pick them up. In the country, I find a few hedgerow trees that yield a crop of crab apples and occasionally eaters, all grist to the jelly making mill. The great thing with apple jelly is that it teams up so well with all manner of herbs and spices; mint, notably (better than mint sauce with lamb, since the sugar adds a pick-me-up to the flavour), or coriander, cinnamons and cloves for a Christmassy mulled warmth, rosemary or sage for a drier note. Pears go with cinnamon and cloves, but need a few apples added for pectin, or a bit of Certo or Vitpris commercial pectin, otherwise the jelly doesn't set.
  • I didn't get any mulberries this year - but I know where they are. Just look for the telltale purple splatter on the pavement. I find that often, people don't realise that the fruits are edible - introduce yourself and explain you want them for a pie or for jelly, offer to share and you'll often find people are very happy to let you pick. These have now become one of my favourite fruits - totally inedible raw, but wonderful cooked with their tart, rich, sumptuous flavour.
  • Hazelnuts are everywhere! Eat'em as they are, or make dukka, which comes in a variety of flavours: with mint and herbs, or cumin and coriander. Or roast and grind for a praline mix which can be used in the same way as ground almonds, as an ingredient in cakes, or to thicken sauces; an excellent kitchen standby. Or in chocolate truffles, if you are deeply sinful.
  • Walnuts are also falling on to the road in a few villages; I sometimes find walnut trees in hedgerows, too. There's one walnut tree in the cathedral close in Norwich that is occasionally generous. Watch out for the skins, which will stain your hands, and anything else they come in contact with, black. For best results, walnuts need to be left to dry in a basket or slat-sided box. Once they're dry, they last for ever. Don't bother cracking till you need them. Like hazelnuts, they can be toasted or made into dukka.
Drying apple slices is another possibility, if you have a drier; they can also be made in the oven on a low heat (150c or below). These keep for a good while in a jar or in a tupperware box. Useful for cakes, in stews and sauces or tagines, in a fruity risotto (with dried apricots and sultanas, for instance), or just as a chewy treat.